Hey it’s Kiley! I’m currently taking a popular cinema class. In this class at first I dreaded the western, but listen purple is the new pink, and the revisionist western is the silver lining of the western genre.
“The Western film genre often portrays the conquest of the wilderness and subordination of nature, in the name of civilization, or the confiscation of the territorial rights of the original inhabitants of the frontier. Specific settings include lonely isolated forts, ranch houses, the isolated homestead, the saloon, the jail, the small-town main street, or small frontier towns that are forming at the edges of civilization. Other iconic elements in westerns include the hanging tree, Stetsons and spurs, lassos and Colt .45’s,stagecoaches, gamblers, long-horned cattle and cattle drives, prostitutes (or madams) with a heart of gold, and more.”(Dirks, T. “Western Films.”)
I started with this quote to pursue the objective or goal of proving what a classic western is and its overall detailed essence in film stylistically. This quote explains the “classic” western far better than I could. The “classic” western is an uncomplicated morality story between the forces of good and the forces of bad, such as in “High Noon”. This films “hero”, Gary Cooper, goes against the values of the traditional hero and creates an American value foil. This character in the midst of a heated battle is abandoned by his town and left to return order by his own.
The typical starry eyed view of the western is you have your hero, a sheriff maybe or perhaps a cowboy, who stands for wholesome apple pie-lay- it- on-thick society. He stands for fairness, justice, and courage. The poster boy is, John Wayne, the man who always gets a victory in the final scene. He is one of the most important and popular figures that brought this genre into prominence. The face-off against the hero is the villain, “savage” Indians, sometimes a group of greed filled men who’ll stop at nothing to get what they want. Villains represent bad in society and pose a threat to order in these frontier towns. The hero and the villain have the central conflict that makes up the majority of the movie, ending in a shootout, with the good guy riding off into the sunset. A viewer may think classic westerns are an unrealistic, optimistic reflection of cookie cutter American society during the times of these films. People wanted to see good triumph over evil as a way to escape their daily lives, even though we all know that doesn’t always happen in real life. People are plagued by magical and positive thinking. It’s the pull of individualistic and morally conscience society of America. This is what made westerns popular during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.
What defines a “classic” western to me is the inevitable shootout at the end of every western. It embodies all of the things people love and loathe about westerns. It’s climactic showdown between forces of good and evil, with a simple, violent conclusion, followed by the obligatory “happy” ending. No matter what happens during the previous hundred minutes or so, you know someone is going to get shot and killed at the end, almost always being a bad guy. Those who love this genre embrace these conventions, while those who hate this genre are bored by this “formula”.
It’s just another sign of the times, as our beloved classics evolve and change with society. The western genre is no exception. In fact, due to the seemingly strict convections of the western, you could argue that it has undergone the most radical change of any genre. The movies that have changed our perspective of how we look at westerns are called “revisionist” westerns or “anti-westerns”. I dig the term revisionist, as I think an anti-western is a subgroup or kind of revisionist western. To me: an anti-western is an un-western story in a western setting, whereas a revisionist is taking the formulaic conventions we all know and love, but change them to fit the ideas and sensibilities of those involved in making the film, primarily the writer and director. An Example of a revisionist western is “The Wild Bunch” by Sam Peckinpah, which we viewed briefly in class.
The biggest difference I’ve found between classic and revisionist westerns is the overall tone of the films. Classic westerns, for the most part, are an incorrect romanticized view of the old west. Revisionist westerns are harsh, realistic, dirty, violent, bloody, and depending on the director, more stylized. They showed how brutal the west really was. People would shoot each other, to settle conflict, sometimes for no reason at all. This was the way people were back then. It was not necessarily as good a time to be alive as classic westerns would make it seem.
The hero in westerns has changed so much over the years, which the term has almost become ironic. The heroes in “The Wild Bunch” are ruthless outlaws, who are just as calculating as the villains hired to find and kill them. Clint Eastwood’s, “Unforgiven”, completely demythologized the hero and villain roles. He showed what life was like after the gun for a gunslinger and how helpless they were without it, thereby making the Eastwood character sympathetic; who we are told was a violent, mean, and nasty man in his youth. He took the sheriff role, commonly the hero or at least a good guy in the classic west and made him the evil villain.
By changing the conventions of the hero and villain, revisionist westerns had a much greater complexity and therefore more interesting focus. Bad guys are almost always more interesting than good guys. Not to mention, there tend to be many more “cool” moments when all the characters are badasses.
Another feature I like about revisionist westerns is the tendency to end on a “sour” or depending on your emotional attachment to the characters, a sad ending. The possibility of the “good “guys getting killed makes the movie more interesting, the showdown more exciting, and the conclusion more satisfying in many respects. It goes along with the more authentic and realistic tones of these westerns and adds a great deal of credibility to them. If the “wild bunch” had survived somehow, that would completely contradict the realistic effect Peckinpah was going for. By taking the movie to its natural conclusion, it enhances the movie as a whole, since the last impression you have of a movie is its ending. You don’t want people leaving the theatres saying, “Yeah, the Wild Bunch was good until the cop out, “Hollywood “ending. That lessens the impact the movie is supposed to make upon you and lessens itself in doing so.
I’m a fan of the western genre, much more so of the revisionist style then classic. While I like many things about classic westerns, as a whole they are less interesting to me. I prefer the visceral impact of The Wild Bunch or whoever Clint Eastwood plays in films, over John Wayne playing a sheriff and shooting indeans.